Interview with an Innovator

Seamus O’Donnell: ‘We use a collaborative approach on every dish, with opinions from different areas of the business’

The Alchemist's executive chef reveals the dark arts he employs to keep food theatrical - at a reasonable price point.

10 August 2018
chainschefsmenurestaurants

O’Donnell on Paper – CV

  • Started his professional career at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin
  • Held the position of head chef at Loch Fyne Seafood & Grill and Ego Restaurants
  • Joined The Alchemist team in 2010 as head of kitchen operations, before being promoted to executive chef in 2015

The Alchemist opened its first location in Manchester in 2010 – and Seamus O’Donnell has been an acolyte ever since. Self-described “masters in the dark arts of molecular mixology and demons in the kitchen,” the brand currently has an apt 13 locations, though two more London sites are scheduled to join the nationwide portfolio in the coming months. 

While bartenders whip up bubbling concoctions front of house, behind the scenes O’Donnell has been developing his own cult in the kitchen. “When I was appointed executive chef of The Alchemist in 2015 after the management buyout, it meant I could take things I had learned under my mentor, John Branagan at Living Ventures, and apply it to my own brand,” says O’Donnell. “I started to create my own culture, developing armies of chefs to open 10 more kitchens in three years.

"My kitchens are more of an academy of learning as well as being a job. My philosophy and teachings empower my chefs to achieve more. I like to progress from within through The Alchemist. By hiring like-minded head chefs as myself, they will also hire like-minded individuals, which helps me when it comes to developing both menus and kitchens alike.”

We speak to the culinary high priest about signature dishes, ways the menu has changed and how a farm boy came to run the kitchens at one of UK's most exciting concepts.

I grew up on a farm, so I suppose you could say I was surrounded by food, and my dad was key to me getting started as a chef in the local hotel. My mother was very much into baking at home. It was unheard off to go to the supermarket and buy an apple tart, so on a Saturday morning we would make up to 10 apple tarts, scones and buns, and then do local drop-offs with the neighbours. In her head she was getting us ready to leave home by giving us the basic skills, as one of us was baking, one of us was washing the clothes and the rest of us were out on the farm.

I very nearly became an accountant! But I followed my heart rather than my head and chose to get enrolled on a two-year, full-time catering course in Limerick. This gave me the foundations on which I had the time to learn the facts and knowledge and real-life skills of the hospitality industry. Having a competitive nature, I was lucky to represent the college in the National Apprentice two years running, which exposed me to taking part in Hotel Olympia in Dublin.

I sought out my second-year college placement at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin, a luxury five-star hotel located opposite the House of Parliament, working for executive chef Ed Cooney. This was a tough environment for any commis chef to enter, as at the time there was always someone waiting to take your place. I started off in the pastry section with Paul Kelly; he is currently a judge on The Great Irish Bake Off.

I moved into the hot kitchen under the wing of an Englishman, Mark Doe, who was a great chef. It was from him I learnt the skills of man management. He was probably one of the most influential at the time as he was able turn any situation around with no fuss and always a smile. His leadership and training skills empowered me to develop my own philosophy of ‘trust, honesty and reliability.’

The biggest change with The Alchemist’s food offering is that we are now offering more premium dishes with deeper flavours and presentations. We have been able do this gradually over the different menu changes by teaching the chefs new skills and introducing them to ingredients that they would never have really touched before, and being brave and bold by having contrasting colours which grab everyone’s attention as [a dish] is walked through the restaurant. Our Keralan curry is a prime example of this.

Many years ago, chefs would have had long faces if a vegetarian walked into the restaurant, but I feel we embrace them and have a strong offering to cater for vegans and vegetarians.

The signature dishes are undefeated year on year: Chicken in a Basket, closely followed by the Prawn Lollipops! As we develop new menus, I am always on the lookout for new products to improve present dishes and create new ones. I would like to think we are being more theatrical, which gives the feeling of the guest going ‘wow,’ as with the Cotton Candy Baked Alaska.

We use a collaborative approach on every dish, with opinions from different areas of the business, but I would have to give a special mention to my Pork Bon Bons. They are very moreish!

When I look back at the menus in the past, I am very proud of the presentations that we give at the moment. Our food is more Instagram friendly, caters for a wide variety of tastes and cultures, which offers choice when dining out. The use of sexier crockery is always a help, but it’s the flavours on the plate that gives me the edge at The Alchemist.

Something that I thought would be a hit was the Sugar Cured Duck with a Pink Grapefruit and Girotine Cherry Salad. This was a dish I developed in my younger days and starred in many competitions. It was a hit even as I worked my way around Australia, but when it came to The Alchemist menu years ago, the bubble burst. I haven’t lost faith in this and I feel it will come back on a future menu as the food has changed a lot since then, and the dining scene has moved along where people are now becoming more adventurous when eating out.

I’ve been experimenting with ruby chocolate callets. When people think of chocolate, we always think of white/dark, so the chance to offer something different is exciting. Flavour-wise, they have an intense fruitiness and fresh, sour notes.

People are becoming more aware of what they eat and where food comes from, whether that is through dietary requirements or lifestyle choices. Having confidence in your provenance and sustainability of the products is key. We get out into our local communities to source cheeses for menu, which enables both the restaurant and the shop to build that link in the community.

What are the biggest mistakes that chefs make when creating new menu items? I always feel they get lost in how something looks. Presentation is a key part of the dish but not the main one. It needs to taste good. I always say to chefs, would you eat that or be happy to get this? Lastly, it needs to be value for money in what is a competitive climate.

When it comes to creating a successful dish, I always ask: is it value for money? Are your ingredients in season? Does it taste good? Can you get multiple use for those ingredients in other dishes (this will reduce wastage and help ensure freshness)? Does it match the brand or restaurant environment it’s getting served in? Is it theatrical or Instagram friendly? Can your chefs produce it to same quality as yourself?

The Alchemist food scene will always be trying to stay trendy, theatrical, value for money and consistent; a place where we develop the future chefs through The Alchemist Apprentice Programme, which I will be launching soon!

Add to Idea Book

"Seamus O’Donnell: ‘We use a collaborative approach on every dish, with opinions from different areas of the business’"
Choose Idea Book